China is often called the homeland of tea, however, even today we are not exactly sure how tea was first discovered. The legend of Emperor Shen Nung as the discoverer of tea dates back to 2737 BC, but scholars list a Chinese dictionary that dates back to 350 AD as a more reliable source. The Dictionary was written by Erh Ya and it is the first document which officially lists tea as a beverage prepared from boiled leaves. Back then tea was recognized as a herbal medicine and consumed as a remedy for illnesses.
Drinking tea for pleasure or on social occasions didn’t come until the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AC). During that dynasty tea drinking became a widespread practice in China and that is also when Lu Yu wrote his famous book Cha Jing (The Classic of Tea) introducing the art of tea drinking and tea making for the first time on paper. The book contains practical information about how and where tea should be grown, evaluated, prepared and enjoyed, but it also describes how the formal tea ceremony should be performed and what tools should be used. The amount of equipment needed caused tea to be a drink only for the wealthy also making the beverage a symbol of status in society. It was also only distributed in brick (compressed) form.
During the Sung Dynasty (690 – 1279 AC) tea farms were common and harvest followed more strict guidelines. The leaves were picked with fingernails only by young girls to the rhythm of drums and later sorted by their grades. The highest grade of tea was given to the emperor as tribute tea. Tea rooms and houses start emerging were social events take place and tea art of tea is enjoyed. This period is also an introduction to pots – tea that was earlier prepared in bowls is now steeped in pots. The passion for tea caused people to compete in discovering new varieties, which also lead to the process of grinding leaves to create powdered tea. Powdered tea required new tools for preparation such as a whisk, not mentioned in Lu Yu’s book, thus altering the ‘way of tea’ recognized so far. The new way of preparing powdered tea was supposed to bring harmony to the body and mind. A new type of tea appears – white tea – and it’s proclaimed the pinnacle of elegance by emperor Hui Zhong.
The tea ceremony of the Song Dynasty involving whisking of powdered tea was brought by Japanese monks to Japan, but completely disappeared in China during the 13th century, due to the sudden outburst of Mongolian tribes in China. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1911 AD) processing leaves was refined to produce various loose leaf teas. Whereas in previous dynasties brick and powdered teas were common respectively, in 1391 the Ming court has issued a decree that only loose leaf tea can be a tribute tea. The tender tea buds where considered highest quality and were offered as gifts to the emperor. This form of tea has been developed and refined since and is today the most popular form. For many scholars tea tasting was a hobby and they wrote books and manuals containing their experiences with the beverage. During the Qing Dynasty tea is part of everyday life for the Chinese expressing and symbolizing relationships and order in society and generations.
In the 17th century the tea fermentation process is introduced and in late 18th and early 19th century mass production of tea takes place. At the end of the 19th century the tea industry in China suffers greatly as yield decreases and Western countries enforce a blockade for importing tea.